Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cefalu and The Eternal Dichotomy

Thalatta, thalatta
The thesis is handed in, tutorials have ceased, and I've run off to Sicily (land of my ancestors, who unfortunately were not Byzantines but Normans, although my great-great-grandfather was an acceptable sort) to attempt to sort out my life, which is as-yet-unsorted until I hear back about grad school applications, funding, etc. I found a bed and breakfast overlooking the sea, which whipped wine-dark all night during a storm, and am attempting a week of meditative retreat, extensive journaling, and sorting out the problematic dichotomy that seems to have unwittingly conquered my self-perception.

I was once told by a rather drunk and venal potential-romantic-interest that I was "Manichean" - that I saw things in terrible, stark binary. Incorrect in context, as it turned out (though he prided himself on uniting the body and soul in a profoundly Whitman-American way I do admire. If I moved back to America I'd ride horses and spend nights under the stars.). But right in theory. I do divide things into cliches (even if I like to soften the blow by calling them "archetypes"). West/East, academia/bohemia, Catholic/Protestant, Hebraic/Classical, Europe/America, Old World/New Word. I'm in love with images and ideas: my favorite writers, like Lawrence Durrell, are the ones who evoke: they can write of "Circassians" or "scented marketplaces" or "Arabian deserts" or chateaux in Avignon and have the very images carry something over to me.
Just saying the WORDS Arab-Norman-Byzantine excite me - c.f., the Cefalu Duomo.

The problem, of course, is that this turns quickly from evocation into Homeric epithet ("wine-dark sea"; "grey-eyed Athena"; "clever Odysseus" .... "sun-dappled Sicily", "melancholy Vienna", "wild Caucasus") and from epithet into cliche. ("Georgia, a blend of East and West, a melting pot of cultures...." I've done web travel writing to pay the rent in time gone by, and there's been a lot of [insert country here] is a fascinating mix of old and new, with charming [ruins/temples/churches/casbahs] standing alongside vibrant [cafes/galleries/performance art installations]. And I know, I know, my weakness is falling in love with novel-worthy images and ideals, and casting myself as the heroine in my Many Great adventures.

The Professorial Personage's Demesne
The problem is that these tendencies mean that I've got two completely incompatible novels of myself in my head. There's the Novel of England, which involves me getting my D.Phil, fussing over manuscripts, trudging around Oxford in musty skirts, getting my boots muddy in the canal, writing theological tomes (ideally promoting the cause of Christian feminism combined with esoteric studies of minor obscure Eastern Christian texts), drinking tea, and snuggling under quilts. This Professorial Personage is intellectual; she is cerebral. She probably wears glasses and looks down her nose at you for not knowing the proper application of a dagesh forte. Easy evocative images here - West, Gothic, Old Norse, stone, ice, winter, establishment, country house parties.(To compound the dichotomy, Very English Boyfriend is, in fact, an Oxford-educated Old English and Norse scholar who loves Jane Austen. Although he's a Catholic, which is messy.) Cliche One, enacted for six months of the year.

The Bohemian Novelist probably lives here -
when she's not sleeping under the stars or on the road.
Then there's the Novel of the East (yes, I know, Edward Said is turning up his nose). The Bohemian Novelist who poses in garrets for Parisian artists, serves as a dark-eyed muse for pianists in Vienna, dresses in Bedouin garb, and writes novels while trekking from Syria to Egypt. This is my life in Georgia, to some extent (or at least I pretend to myself that it is) - melancholy wanderings in Sololaki and long tea-breaks at the bathhouse, although Georgia is frustrating precisely because I can't put it nearly into my mental dichotomy or ascribe to it Homeric epithets. Images: Classical poetry, the Mediterranean, carpets, terracotta, whitewashed houses. Cliche Two.

So, with everything hanging in the balance, I've got decide what on earth I'm going to do with my life (keep this precarious Georgia-England balance? Leave it all behind and go to Rome? Decide to stay in Damascus halfway through my summer tour? If I don't get Oxford funding, who knows? It may be Damascus after all, - or else I'm bound to ghostwriting quite a few romance novels at 3 am*

The problem, of course, is that I can't be a cliche. I can't have my tomes-and-tea or my scrolls-and-sands: at least not in the unadulterated way I read about in novels. (Both of my Cliches also assume it's 1935). I've got to integrate these various sides of myself - to find a way to be both professorial and bohemian, Gothic and Mediterranean. I suppose Byzantium fills that hole for me - it's musty and ancient and irrelevant, but it's also mosaiced and gold-haloed and evocative.As does Georgia, although Georgia I'm still figuring out.

So fitting, I suppose. I come to the land of my ance stors literal  (there's a village that bears my father's last name right down the coast!) and figurative (mess of Norman-Byzantine-Arab-Italian that makes up my day to day life) to try to accomplish something like integrated selfhood. A self that isn't just "the one who" goes to Jordan or "the one who" does a D.Phil in Byzantine theology, but is something more, something that is a self beyond its attributes.

(And this is where my Christian Trinitarianism comes in, and I do think Zizioulas has something interesting theological to say on the matter of selfhood.)

And yes, this is very much a First World Problem. But this week - the first week I've had without either schoolwork or (much) ghostwriting work in a very long time - ought to be a start on sorting it.

Future Sicilian travel plans (and posts-to-come): Taormina, Castelbuono, Agrigento, Palermo/Monreale.

*How I pay my rent/tuition/travel costs. Really, I swear. But I can't tell you which ones. Then they'd fire and sue me and I'd have no more money to go to Cefalu!


Anonymous said...

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Peter G. Shilston said...

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